Exploitation and racism in the ancient world

6 Nov 2023

Interview with historian John Weisweiler about discriminatory topoi in the Roman Empire and parallels with our modern world.

A Roman mosaic from the end of the 2nd / beginning of the 3rd century A.D. | © akg-images / André Held

Not only was ancient Rome extremely violent, but discriminatory topoi were ubiquitous – and continue to exert a pernicious influence, says historian John Weisweiler. As part of the lecture series “Excluded! Discrimination and Racism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” the professor of ancient history and his colleague Professor Martin Zimmermann are giving a lecture on “Discrimination and Racism in the Roman Empire” on 9 November 2023.

When we think of discrimination in ancient Rome, slavery is often the first thing to come to mind. Are we right in making this association?

John Weisweiler: The term ‘discrimination’ doesn’t quite fit here. Slaves weren’t just a discriminated group, but a violently exploited one. The philosophers and intellectuals of the day knew very well that the system couldn’t be justified. It was seen as a brutal but unavoidable reality.

What discriminatory ideas held sway in the ancient world?

Theories of a hierarchy of peoples existed – which is unsurprising, as the ancient Mediterranean region was controlled by empires that were based on the exercise of massive violence. These extreme forms of inequality were generally not justified in genetic terms. The prevailing concept was the so-called environmental theory of ethnic difference. This claimed that the comparatively harsh climate north of the Roman Empire made the Celts and the Germanic peoples tough and resilient, but did not beget the discipline and self-control that equipped people for rulership. Southern climes, by contrast, favored the development of intellectual, but not physical capacities. Accordingly, it was only the Mediterranean peoples who possessed the perfect blend of attributes – not coincidentally, the group who came up with the theory! Modern racism draws on these ancient notions.

What is known about discrimination against women in the ancient world?

Both Greece and Rome were highly patriarchal societies. Property lay in the hands of men, with one peculiarity: Because Roman law wanted to prevent the money of one paterfamilias passing into the hands of another when their children married each other, there was a strict separation of property. This had benefits for women: If their father died, they could dispose over their inheritance as they wished.

How was discrimination against women justified?

Most ancient medical theories were based on the idea that there was an ideal sex – men. Women were men with parts subtracted, who lacked the requisite warmth in their wombs to develop male sex organs and were deficient in physical and mental strength. For their part, men were encouraged to follow what was perceived as male codes of behavior as closely as possible. If they engaged in gluttony or sexual excess, they put themselves at risk of feminization, it was thought. This also applied to passive homosexual practices. There seems to have been something that resembles modern notions of transsexuality, the most famous example being that of the emperor Elagabalus, who is said to have felt as a woman and is said to have sought gender-affirming surgery.

Were the old, the sick, and the disabled discriminated against?

Poverty and illness appear much less frequently in the ancient sources than in medieval texts. This is because Christians liked to demonstrate their moral virtue by helping the poor, the sick, orphans, and widows. In pre-Christian religions, we hear nothing of such practices. That being said, this does not necessarily mean that pagans treated their sick and poor any worse than Christians did. In any event, the most important distinction in the ancient city was not between sick and healthy or old and young, but between citizens and non-citizens.

No citizenship rights meaning discrimination?


What can we learn for the present from studying discrimination and racism in that era?

That many important elements of modern racism already existed in the ancient world. The climate theory in particular has had a strong and enduring influence. It lurks behind many modern explanations of African underdevelopment. By studying the ancient world, we see that racism doesn’t come from nowhere. It arises in exploitative societies founded on massive inequality, which embrace ideas that promote the interests of elite groups in those societies and legitimize precisely these circumstances.

Have you come across any particularly fanciful justifications of discrimination?

It’s actually surprising how unimaginative the arguments are. Whether it concerns slaves, women, or ethnic groups, you find the same old topoi again and again. The pattern is always the same: hierarchically dominant groups ascribe greater self-control to themselves and conclude that the exploited groups need to be governed by them. Subsequent ages have keep returning to this theme, right up to modern times.

Has the topic of discrimination and racism in the ancient world been sufficiently researched?

Although there are some very good papers and books on the subject, it’s likely that current discussions will open up new perspectives on antiquity. The questions we pose as historians are always influenced by the world in which we live. If ideas and attitudes toward certain issues change, so too does what interests us about the ancient world.

Brief bio:

John Weisweiler is Professor of Roman and Late-Antique History at LMU. His main research interest is in the social, economic, and cultural history of Roman elites, particularly with regard to social inequality.

Lecture series “Excluded! Discrimination and Racism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance” ( Ausgegrenzt! Diskriminierung und Rassismus in Mittelalter und Renaissance)

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